Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

29 July 2010

Young People, Please Save Us (and Yourselves), Again!


[For comment on the noseless woman and the apparent propaganda war against the President, click here. For a more recent update to that story, click here. For an update on the May 6 “flash crash,” click here.]

A month before the last presidential election, I implored you young people to save us, and yourselves.

You rose to the occasion. You worked your tails off for candidate Obama and made him President.

I know, because my wife and I let one of you stay in our home during the last three weeks of the campaign. We rarely saw our campaign worker, whom we called the “phantom.” He was up before we were and came back from work after we had gone to bed. He and you should be proud of what you accomplished.

Now you have to do the same sort of thing again. It’s going to be harder this time, because the President’s name won’t be on the ballot.

There will be people there whom you barely know, because you’ve rightly focused on your own lives, which are just beginning, not local politics. Unless you live in an unusual congressional district, you won’t be able to vote for a charismatic and admirable figure like the President.

So your motivation will have to come from understanding what’s at stake, not personal admiration. That’s tough, but you can do it.

Make no mistake about it. November’s election is just as important as the presidential election in which you already worked so hard. Why? Because it’s really the very same election continued.

Long before the President’s inauguration, the Republicans settled on a simple strategy. They knew the economy was going in the tank, because their policies caused the collapse, and because it had already started on their watch. They knew things would inevitably get worse for a while, at least two or three years. (No economy, let alone the world’s biggest, has ever turned around on a dime, let alone after a major shock like the 2008 collapse.)

So they decided to block and to ridicule every attempt to make things better and blame the consequences on the President. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Don’t believe me? Look at history. Three days after the President’s inauguration, Rush Limbaugh announced the Republicans’ goal. “I hope,” Limbaugh said, “he [the President] fails.”

I just retired last January. I’m 65 years old. In my long life, I can’t remember any public figure ever saying anything of the kind. Whether you agree with him in every instance or not, Barack Obama is our president. Saying that you want him to fail is saying that you want us—America—to fail. What a traitorous, cynical thing for any public figure to say!

But that was the plan. The Republicans didn’t just name their goal. They pursued it with avidity and lockstep discipline.

In eighteen months, in a nation desperate for fundamental change, only three significant new laws have made it through the gauntlet of solid Republican opposition. The stimulus package got through early on, because everyone (including some Republicans) feared there would be a second Great Depression without it. Health-insurance reform got the support of a handful of moderate Republicans, who understood that too many people were suffering and dying because of tricky policies—and even trickier behavior—on the part of private insurers. And financial reform made it through because even Republicans understood that virtually every private citizen blamed Wall Street for the economic collapse, and rightly so.

But every other initiative of the President’s failed due to lockstep Republican opposition. A much-needed second stimulus failed. Comprehensive immigration reform was dead on arrival. Attempts to reduce our suicidal dependence on foreign oil and curb climate change failed. Even attempts to extend unemployment benefits to people out of work for no fault of their own failed, until the GOP began to understand that opposing the extension was political suicide. Most recently, the GOP killed a bill to support small businesses under stress, although the bill earlier had had extensive bipartisan support, including the endorsement of the National Chamber of Commerce and other traditionally Republican organizations.

GOP leaders Boehner and McConnell say these bills all failed because Republicans had better ideas, and the Democrats didn’t listen. But watch what they did, not what they say. Every time one of these bills came up for a decisive vote, the Republicans were unanimous, or nearly so, against it. Can you name any GOP idea, to which the President paid no attention, that was self-evidently so brilliant as to justify that sort of adamant, lock-step opposition?

The final piece of the puzzle is timing. As I’ve outlined in another post, the GOP’s five chief “complaints” today are nothing new. The GOP announced them—every one of them!—before February 2009, one month after the President’s inauguration, before the President had announced his policies or done anything of note, except propose the stimulus (which all competent economists then supported).

Look over the list of five, and you’ll see precisely what the GOP argues today. Their game plan has not changed since the President took office. It is to make him look bad and regain power so they can continue the policies that brought us to this point.

Which brings me back to you. You understand these things, or you will if you pay attention. What you may not understand is that it’s your future at stake.

Whatever happens in November, the Republicans cannot take control of both Houses, and the President will still have veto power. So the only thing a Republican “victory” in November will create is more gridlock in Washington. If the Republicans make substantial gains, nothing serious or substantial will get done during the next two years, and the 2012 presidential campaign will begin almost immediately. Imagine another two years of incessant bickering, negative attacks, and finger pointing, with nothing getting done!

As youth, you’re just starting out on your adult lives and careers. I don’t have to tell you that jobs are scare in America and getting scarcer. We’re falling behind China (which is booming), Europe (which is recovering slowly) and even India and Brazil (which are growing rapidly from a much smaller base than ours).

In jobs, new industries, education and infrastructure, we are falling further and further behind the rest of the world. If this trend continues, you will spend the best years of your life in a once-leading nation struggling to catch up.

The GOP just doesn’t seem to care. It has its agenda: let everything go to hell and take power at the next election. If Republicans really cared about your future and the nation’s, would they act that way?

So once again, I implore you. You’ve got several weeks yet before you go back to school or college. Use them wisely. Contact your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Let them know this coming election is not about race, “socialism,” big government, debt, the right to bear arms, or whether the President is really an American (he is, as much as you or I!). It’s about you and your future.

If the GOP prevails with their “make the country lose so we win” strategy, then you lose, too. You career and your earnings will never recover from the minimum two or three years of economic doldrums that will result. And don’t even think about a “lost decade” like the one Japan just went through.

So tell the people you contact that you love them. Tell them they may not understand, especially if they listen to Fox Propaganda as their principal source of “news.” But ask them to do one thing for you, because they love you, too: get off their duffs and vote for every Democrat on the ballot, whether they recognize the names or not.

Fox Propaganda is good at one thing. It’s the most effective machine of mass disinformation in human history. It’s evident goals are: (1) making lots of money for Rupert Murdoch, an immigrant from Australia, and (2) keeping the GOP in power whatever the consequences.

If Fox wins, you lose. It’s that simple. In the best case you lose just a few years. In the worst, you’ll lose a decade, as the Japanese just did, or you’ll have to to emigrate to get a good job and seek a good future.

So don’t let the propaganda fool you or the ones who love you. This election is not about personalities, race, big government, or debt. It’s about allowing the President to continue trying to make the changes that he promised, and about reducing the adamant, mindless opposition that has nearly fought him to a standstill so far. It’s about continuing to make slow and painful change, or going back to the policies of George W. Bush.

This is a hard one, I know. You worked so hard for the President, and so little has happened so far. Eighteen months can seem like an eternity. But it’s early days yet, and you know in your heart that that Party of No is responsible for the slow pace of reform.

It may be hard to motivate yourselves, or even to vote, when the President is not on the ballot and there’s no one you really admire there. But if you don’t support the President’s party, you’ll be voting against him as surely as if it were 2008 or 2012.

So make one last effort for the nation and yourselves. Work to give the President two more years of a chance to accomplish something, not two more years of impotence. It’s your own future you are fighting for. If enthusiasm doesn’t drive you, then fear of more gridlock and even direr consequences should.

[For another perspective on the upcoming elections, with questions for the right, left, and center, click here.]

Afghanistan: the War Propaganda Machine


Apparently I am one of the favored few. I went to what was then one of the best public high schools in the United States, reputed to be among the top five. In my senior year, our social-studies teacher spent two weeks teaching us how to recognize propaganda.

He was a gifted teacher and an amateur historian. He had collected decades’ worth of Life Magazine, which in the pre-Internet, pre-TV era served as a sort of national chronicle. He showed us one example of wartime propaganda from that chronicle that I still remember 48 years later.

It had come out during the First World War, when the Kaiser’s Germany was our enemy. It showed hand-drawn profiles of two soldiers, top and bottom. The top one had a western profile, with a bulge at the back of the head. A small arrow pointed into the bulge, indicating the location of the “soul.” Underneath was a Prussian solider’s profile, with a straight back of the neck and head running together. The back of the head had no discernible bulge, as is common among that ethnic group. Here a similar arrow ended in empty space, demonstrating how Germans have “no soul.” This bit of propaganda drew particular force from the popularity, at that time, of a pseudo-science called “phrenology,” which taught that the shapes of bulges on people’s skulls could reveal their character.

To a science-oriented student growing up in the fifties and sixties, this patent propaganda was both jarring and memorable. It raised questions in my mind. First, how could the magazine’s publishers have engaged in such obviously fanciful demonization of the enemy? Second, how could they stoop so low in a war that, as far as anyone has been able to determine then or since, had no rational justification besides imperial hubris on all sides?

Most scholars and students of World War I believe it accomplished nothing but massacring the flower of male youth in Western Europe and setting the stage for Germany’s aggression in World War II. In its scale and damage, it may have been history’s most senseless war. Was there some sociopolitical law at work here? Is senseless demonization of the enemy proportional to the senselessness of the war?

All this baggage of memory floated to the surface when I looked at Time magazine’s cover page for this week. (Time Magazine, August 9, 2010.) It shows a photo of an otherwise attractive Afghan woman, in a head scarf, with her nose cut off, reportedly on order from the Taliban. The caption is “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.”

Now there are differences between these two exemplars of propaganda. Life’s examplar from World War I was obviously fanciful and false. In contrast, I cannot believe that an icon of journalism like Time would have falsified the photograph, although it’s easy enough to do these days, and although a noted blogger recently did the equivalent to text. So I start from the presumption that Time is visually telling the truth, i.e., that somewhere in Afghanistan the photographed victim of tribal cruelty actually lives, and that members of the Taliban were partly responsible.

For me, what this comparison illustrates is how much more sophisticated mainstream propaganda has grown since World War I. The story inside even tells more of the truth. The real culprits were the woman’s cruel in-laws, who had kept her as a slave. Her brother-in-law held her down, while her husband actually did the cutting (of both ears, as well as the nose). A Taliban leader merely rendered a tribal-Islamic judgment, with which the cruel in-laws were only too happy to comply. But if you don’t read the story inside and just look at the cover, or the equally horrible image on page 21, you could succumb to overwhelming revulsion for the Taliban, without even thinking whether all, most or even some of them would have acted that same way.

Demonization of the enemy is never an effective strategy, especially in a war like Afghanistan’s, which requires subtlety, finesse and winning hearts and minds over from the enemy. This is not a “total war” like World War II; it is a war against a domestic insurgency that is partly a national liberation movement, partly a combatant in an inter-ethnic civil war (nearly all of the Taliban are Pashtun), and partly a radical religious jihad. The fact that Time’s publishers, who are firmly entrenched in the business wing of our ruling class, released this blatant propaganda suggests that they and the war’s supporters have run out of good reasons for continuing it.

In fact, this sort of propaganda contravenes our current strategy in Afghanistan. No one in our military believes that we have the force, let alone the time, to kill all the Taliban. So we must co-opt some of them, that is, win them over to our or the Afghan government’s side. Afghan President Hamid Karzai supports this strategy even more than we do. Demonizing all of the Taliban, without regard to their beliefs, loyalties and actions, is not the best way to effect this strategy.

The Time story is obvious propaganda. It undermines our strategy in the region and reduces our chances of “winning” (whatever that means) at all, let alone in any reasonable time. So why is one of the principal organs of our ruling class, which used (in my youth) to be far right wing but has become more tolerant and reasonable in recent years, promulgating such propaganda? That is the $64 billion question (about what we’re likely yet to spend in Afghanistan even if we begin to withdraw on the President’s stated schedule.)

Women are the President’s strongest supporters. They put him in the White House. They also happen to be more strongly opposed to the war in Afghanistan than men by a considerable margin. They see no profit or benefit from it, and many males are beginning to agree with them.

The Time cover and cover story are aimed right at women’s guts. All a woman (especially a young one) has to do is look at that noseless woman and put herself in her place, and she will hate the Taliban viscerally and want the war to continue to “victory” (whatever that means) at all costs. She also might want to achieve that “victory” by killing as many Taliban as possible, regardless of their views and actions, and regardless of whether they are “reconcilable” to an Al-Qaeda-less Afghanistan, which is our principal goal.

It’s a propaganda ploy worthy of Tokyo Rose. But one question still remains. Why bother? Why should Time Magazine play the part of Tokyo Rose or Goebbels? What is so important to convince it to forfeit its current image of objectivity and reasonableness, which it has carefully nurtured for years, after abandoning its consistently right-wing stance from the days when the Luce family (its original publishers) were still in control?

It can’t be the war itself. Joe Klein, Time’s best columnist, has consistently questioned the war, its aims, and its prosecution. In fact, some of his columns have been the best analyses of their length available in the mainstream press. Anyway, Time's publishers and editors are surely smart enough to know that the war in Afghanistan is no longer vital to our national security (if it ever was) now that Al Qaeda has metastasized into dozens of countries, some of which (like Somalia) are even more chaotic than Afghanistan.

So again, why stoop so low? Why now? It’s always possible that Time, which seems to be getting thinner every week, is falling toward bankruptcy and has to stoop to Hearst-like sensationalism in order to to sell enough magazines to survive. But another explanation is equally plausible. Maybe Time’s publishers and editors have bought the right-wing propaganda about the President’s “socialist” and “anti-business” tendencies and have declared war, not on the Taliban, but on him.

The immediate effect of this propaganda is to put the President in a vise. If he moves to widen or continue the war, especially after the “deadline” of next July, his left wing will peel off or stay home on election day. If he moves to wind it down, a significant number of women, inflamed by that graphic cover (and an equally revolting picture on page 21), may peel off or stay home. Thus the best the President can do politically is say nothing about Afghanistan until the election is over and let his underlings try to mollify both sides. But even that approach puts a president known for his transparency and honesty in an awkward position, to say the least.

The sheer horrifying impact of the two noseless images make this political motivation, in my view, the more probable one. Time seems to be out to win the election for the right. If that’s the case, it’s an especially depressing and ominous development.

In the Reagan era and before, Time was so consistently and mindlessly right wing that I would not have it in my home. But my wife has had a subscription for several years, I read it fairly regularly, and I find it generally balanced and thoughtful. If, despite all that progress, Time has declared propaganda war on the President, it means our business class may have declared total political war.

No matter that the President, following the bailout policies of Dubya’s administration, has saved our economy from a second Great Depression. No matter that, in achieving modest health-insurance reform, the President has partially removed from industry the health-care millstone around its neck that was dragging it down in international competition. No matter that, in reforming the finance sector that once ate up 41% of all business profits in the nation, the President has cleared the field for a resurgence of real business, including media like Time. No matter that getting American women riled up against the Taliban generically will undermine our stated military strategy and make controlling the insurgency more difficult. For some strange reason—whether instinctual class solidarity or seduction by Fox News’ propaganda—even the sane mainstream media (or their owners) may have turned against the President.

If so, the consequences are four. First, November’s election will be the most expensive and mindlessly rancid in our nation’s history. It will make 2008 look like a cake walk. Second, for the next two years, until 2012, the President can probably expect no help at all from business people who call themselves Republicans or “conservatives,” and precious little help from the very few Republican senators who still consider themselves moderates and care about solving the nation’s problems more than scoring political points. For those few remaining good people will be under even more intense pressure, and subject to even stricter retaliation, for stepping out of the GOP party line.

Third, the President’s supporters will have to dig deep in their pockets and work long and hard if they expect the President’s effort to make needed change to continue, let alone to have any success at all. Finally, if the President’s supporters are not successful, and the Republicans gain substantial ground in November, we can expect needed change to stop cold for the foreseeable future and the likelihood of a double-dip recession to increase dramatically. We might then be a nation in irreversible decline.

UPDATE (8/5/10): The New York Timesreporting on this subject today sheds further light on how specious was Time Magazine’s propaganda.

The disfigured girl’s own father had given her at age 12 (and her sister) to the Taliban fighter who later became her husband. This sale into what became slavery was intended to settle a civil wrong: the girl’s uncle’s murder of the fighter’s relative. The fighter later married her, but as he mostly remained in hiding, his family treated her cruelly as a slave. Her running away, while justified from a Western and humanitarian perspective, “dishonored” the husband in a way that tribal idiom describes as “losing his nose.” So the fighter, with his tribal (and Taliban) commander’s approval, responded in kind.

While primitive and horrific from our point of view, all that happened was in accordance with ancient Pashtun tribal custom. It had nothing to do with Islam, Taliban doctrine (apart from tribal custom) or Taliban politics or military strategy. Yet the Time story, from the cover caption to the somewhat less inflammatory text, implies it does. The not-too-subtle subtext is that this is what will happen to all Afghanistan women if the Taliban win. Maybe, if every woman has an uncle who commits murder and must atone under tribal law.

The Time story has every element of propaganda that I learned to identify so long ago. First, although the disfiguration happened, the two photos and the story are designed to inflame the reader's horror without explaining how or why. Second, the real reason for the disfiguration—a prior murder and an ancient and primitive tribal custom for dealing with it, amounting to selling young girls into slavery to the victim’s family—Time never revealed or explained. The obvious motive for the husband’s and his family’s cruelty—having nothing to do with Islam or Taliban politics or strategy—was the murder that started the whole thing off. Third, the Time story blamed the “Taliban” generically, without the slightest hint of facts or logic to back the allegation.

Somewhere William Randolph Heart’s ghost was smiling, thinking about the war he started with similar lies about the Battleship Maine, which most scholars today believe succumbed to an accident, not sabotage. And lest we forget the long-term consequences of propaganda-motivated wars, recall that the Spanish-American war gave us Cuba, which we freed and neglected, mostly for reasons of racism, and left to reach its present state of grace.

“Flash Crash” Update (8/6/10)


It’s nice to be vindicated, and so soon. On May 18, I published a post entitled “Coming Unglued.” It warned how quickly real-time trading disasters can strike when people who understand neither computers nor electronics create electronic “free markets” to which anyone can connect a trading computer with little or no regulation, adult supervision, or real-time oversight.

Today the Wall Street Journal published [subscription required] a preliminary assessment of the “flash crash” of May 6. That brief disaster took only part of one afternoon to unfold. It caused the Dow to fall nearly one thousand points (and later to recover partly), Apple’s stock to trade briefly near $100,000 per share, and other listed, indexed stocks to trade as low as a penny.

The article quotes John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group of Mutual Funds, as follows:
“The whole system failed. In an era of intense technology, bad things can happen so rapidly. Technology can accelerate things to the point that we lose control.”
Amen, Brother Bogle!

Things can go south even quicker when the whole point of the exercise is to let greed-motivated traders program their computers to outwit each other and the markets, with no one minding the store. As the Journal reports, “high-frequency-trading” firms have strategies that “often involve buying and selling stocks within microseconds—or one-millionth of a second.”

Now there’s a valuable contribution to our real economy! You can’t even blink that fast. So what, prey tell (pun intended), fundamentals of a business, a market or the economy can change perceptibly in that short a time? None, of course.

It would be hard to imagine a better demonstration of how much our financial markets have morphed from investment vehicles supporting real business and industry into gambling casinos. And one of these “high-frequency-trading” firms is even from Kansas City, which most of us associate with old-fashioned Midwestern common sense! Maybe it’s time to invent an anti-fungal agent for our infectious cultural rot.

With ironic understatement, Journal reporter Tom Lauricella concludes: “It may be that such a market is inherently vulnerable to high-speed crashes.” Amen, Brother Lauricella! The question now is what we do about it, besides pray or wait fatalistically for disaster to strike again. Our regulatory agencies had better get busy, before a second “Flash Crash” converts a precarious and slowing recovery into 1929 redux. We are a long way from out of the woods yet.

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25 July 2010

It’s the Bystanders, Stupid!


[For a brief note on the surprising consistency of GOP propaganda, click here.]

Have you ever thought hard about why Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek”?

It’s not a particularly effective defense strategy. An enraged enemy might do you serious harm. Ending up broken, perhaps paralyzed―maybe even dead―would not advance the cause of peace. Your family and friends would just cry for vengeance, as was the norm in Jesus’ time.

And what if society, in accordance with law, “got even” by imprisoning or murdering your tormentor? Then your enemy’s family and friends would blame what was left of you for your enemy’s punishment, and the cycle of hatred and violence would continue. And as for the chances of provoking a personal epiphany in an enemy in full attack mode, aren’t they pretty small?

So what was Jesus saying? His advice makes no sense if you focus only on yourself and your enemy.

But widen the circle a bit and things come into focus. It’s all about the bystanders. Turning your other cheek can have a pretty profound effect on them. (In this analysis, think of bystanders as true neutrals, with no dog in the fight.)

No one likes violence, least of all when it seems unprovoked. When bystanders see you as a victim of what looks like an unprovoked attack, they instinctively favor you, for they put themselves in your place. You may be struck and spat upon, but you will have the community on your side. At least, that’s the theory.

The theory has worked pretty well in practice, too. Jesus started a religion that swept the Western world and changed human culture forever. Gandhi won a nation, and Dr. King and Nelson Mandela vastly improved their peoples’ lots. (Jesus and Dr. King lost their lives, and Mandela spent 27 years in prison, but no one ever said Jesus’ strategy was without risk.)

A lot more than historical speculation supports this point of view. Evolutionary biologists are now beginning to understand just what makes us human beings really unique. It’s not the size of our brains. Other primates have brains almost as large, and elephants and whales have ones much bigger. It’s not our language. Other species have languages, just not ones quite as complex as ours. Nor are our opposable thumbs responsible. Other primates’ hands may be more clumsy, but they can hold tools almost as well.

Recent experiments with chimpanzees have shown what makes us truly unique. Only we humans can get inside another’s mind and see, feel, understand or intuit—with or without the aid of language—what the other thinks. The “E-word,” empathy, is what makes us truly social animals and lets us cooperate so closely. It is ultimately responsible for atomic energy, air travel and the Internet—things far beyond the capability of any other species.

Of course the E-word is also what gives turning the other cheek such special social power. That humble act evokes bystanders’ empathy and brings the community to your side.

This insight helps bring a few things from recent political history into focus, too. All throughout the campaign, Barack Obama treated Hillary Clinton with kid gloves. He responded to her attacks with (at most) mild rebukes, calling her least credible claims “inaccurate.” He reacted to her veiled incitement of racism with only a professorial lecture on race. He even held her chair as she sat down. And he won.

With puzzling passivity, the President let the insurance and drug companies and their congressional shills beat him up for seven weeks before ever proposing a health-care bill, and then only in outline. And he won where no president had, despite a century of trying.

And so it goes. When John Lewis endured the spittle and screams of a vile rabble lacking his courage, dignity and sacrifice for his country, the President seemed strangely passive. We poor Boomers—increasingly conscious that our selfish lives did little to improve the world we were born into besides advancing the cause of equality—wanted outrage and fomenting. We got none.

When a scumbag blogger smeared a woman of transcendent character named Shirley Sherrod, we expected lightning bolts to rain down from the White House. There were none.

For eighteen months, ever since his inauguration, the President has suffered the worst sort of obstructionism and lies from his enemies. If you know anything about the history of cooperation between the parties, especially in wartime, you can’t believe the GOP is even on the same national team.

Yet does the President rant and foment? Not a bit. He takes it all in stride, sometimes with humor, calling his tormenters the “Party of No.” And he keeps trying to make amends and work together long after most of us would have given up the effort as futile.

In our day and age, the ruling class does not decide disputes with fisticuffs or jousting. Yet despite the lack of physical violence, politics in America today is rougher than anywhere else in the world and rougher than in most of human history. If you think of politics as a big fight—which it is—this is what turning the other cheek looks like.

I don’t mean to imply that Obama is Christ-like or divine. As a Jew, I don’t believe in Jesus’ divinity. But I do believe that Jesus was one of the most effective leaders in human history, and perhaps the one who best understood what makes us human.

History supports that point of view. Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, Pericles, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Zhu Di, George III, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao are all gone, their regimes and ideas a fading memory. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR remain in our American hearts, but after only an eyeblink in history. Jesus Christ still has hundreds of millions of fervent followers in every corner of the globe, two millennia after his birth. And not only do they follow his memory; they pay close attention to what he said. No human has ever duplicated that feat, and perhaps none ever will.

So don’t discount Jesus’ strategy until all the votes are counted.

Of course the rabble who spat on John Lewis are going to vote in unpredictable ways. Of course Beck’s and Limbaugh’s duped followers are going to vote red. But they are not the bystanders. They are the attack dogs. The bystanders are the independent, non-aligned Americans who are too busy worrying about their damaged and frenetic lives to focus on November’s election until, at most, a week or two beforehand.

When these bystanders go to the polls, they are going to have to compare. They are going to put John Lewis mentally side by side with the rabble who spat on him. They are going to put Shirley Sherrod side by side with the blogger who slimed her. They are going to put the President, who brought them health-insurance reform and curbed Wall Street’s rogue bankers, however imperfectly, side by side with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and their cult of “no” and business as usual. Finally, they are going to have to put their specific candidates for the Senate and House side by side. And they are going to have to decide with whom they empathize.

Two millennia of history say they will empathize with the ones who meekly tried to heal their hurt and turned the other cheek. At least, that seems to be the theory. God help us if TV and the Internet have fudged the human equation and it doesn’t work this time.

[For specific comment on the Shirley Sherrod story, click here.]

While on the subject of November’s elections, I thought I’d provide a link to a post I wrote in February 2009, about a month after the President’s inauguration. Entitled “Five Economic Lies,” it lists (and refutes) the GOP’s major complaints against the Obama Administration even before it had begun serious work.

What astounded me when I re-read the post was that these are the very same five lies the GOP is using now. Nothing in the seventeen-month interim changed the mantra one iota.

Think about that. When I wrote that post, no one knew what would happen or how the new Administration would act. The President and most of his Cabinet were new, with no track records in their positions. Since that time, we’ve had (some would say suffered) some of the most unpredictable and tumultuous events in our own and world history—an economic meltdown, reversals in Afghanistan, persistent unemployment, continuing offshoring of jobs, near-disapprearance of our auto industry, an unpredictable ecological disaster in the Gulf, and spectacular increases in concentration of wealth at the top of our society. Yet the Republicans’ complaints today, after all this history and turmoil, are precisely the ones they had the month after the President’s inauguration. Nothing that has happened since seems to have made any impression on them.

There are two possibilities. First, the party that ruined our international reputation, destroyed our economy, hollowed out our manufacturing base, and left us dangerously and stupidly dependent on foreign oil was so smart and clairvoyant as to have predicted everything that’s happened in the last seventeen months precisely as it did. Second, the GOP sings the same tune no matter what happens in the real world, and no matter how many times it’s proven off key. You decide.

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24 July 2010

Outrage! (The Shirley Sherrod Story)


I try not to notice, let alone respond to, the many bizarre distractions that our well-organized right-wing fringe produces daily. We all know their twin aims: throwing the Obama Administration off message and off stride, and getting common people to neglect their own economic interests. It’s unspeakably tragic that so many of us―including good reporters who should know better―chomp lustily on this obvious bait. At least those of us who see through this modern version of Caesar’s bread and circuses shouldn’t feed the trolls.

Yet there are times when the results of these intentional distractions are so outrageous that comment is justified. The Shirley Sherrod episode is one of them.

As the whole nation now knows, Shirley Sherrod was a low-level official in the federal Department of Agriculture. She happens to be African-American. She also happens to have lost her father, while very young, to a bit of racist terrorism in the South, of the kind that many Americans, in our lovely “post-racial” world, tend blissfully to forget. [See transcript or video, available 7/26].

But Sherrod got over her understandable bitterness from what racism had done to her and her family. For many years, her job at the Agriculture Department was administering federal aid to small farmers in need. At first, she begrudged a few white farmers the assistance they sought. But as she grew into her job, she saw how injustice and hardship are equal-opportunity misfortunes. She became color blind and began to assist whites and her own race with equal zeal.

Furthermore, she discovered an open secret behind our persistent poverty, backwardness and increasingly extreme division between rich and poor. She came to understand how deliberately fostered racial division prevents poor and unfortunate whites and blacks from helping each other, politically or otherwise, and thereby keeps both down. In short, she saw through the “divide and conquer” strategy that has made the South and other regions more like an hereditary aristocracy than the egalitarian democracy we suppose we have.

Sherrod laid all this out in a 43-minute speech at the NAACP. She pulled no punches. She described her earlier racial bitterness and partiality, her growth as a person and a government official, and her current view that racial division and partiality are holding back not just small farmers, but everyone who is not, by birth or wealth, in the ruling class. Her speech recounted an extraordinary epic of personal growth, redemption and evolving social and political insight.

A blogger (whose name should be forever damned) edited a video of the speech. He took the part where Sherrod confesssed her earlier partiality, out of context, and published it alone. Fox News and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine picked up this forgery and cast it into the video hall of mirrors as evidence of the rampant “reverse racism” (black against white) that they constantly cite but never seem to pinpoint with precision or credibility.

An embattled Agriculture Department, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, fired Sherrod immediately. It didn’t review the misleading blog post’s origin in any depth. It didn’t watch or read Sherrod’s whole speech, which the NAACP didn’t publish until later. It didn’t even bother to hear Sherrod’s side of the story. Sherrod got a cell-phone call while driving around Washington, instructing her to submit her resignation on her Blackberry, which she did while parked at the side of the road.

I won’t recount the subsequent history or the belated apologies, including the President’s. Whatever the perpetrators of this tragedy, including Vilsack, do to atone is too little, too late. What I do want to do is make three points that I have not seen elsewhere.

First, Sherrod has a transcendently beautiful character, tempered in the fire of injustice, personal loss, justifiable anger and redemption. She is precisely the sort of person we should want every government “bureaucrat” to be. Octogenarian white farmers whom she had helped arose from obscurity into the unwelcome glare of the national news cycle to help clear her name.

Allowing false, base and mindless partisan propaganda to remove this marvelous woman from public service says something very damning about our culture. It is not just a tragedy. It is an outrage.

Second, precious few opinion leaders in this country showed a hint of the outrage that was due. To his credit, reporter John Harwood, of CNBC and the New York Times did, speaking on Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week on PBS. (Journalists, of course, should feel special outrage, since doctoring speeches to advance a preconceived agenda is the antithesis of journalism.)

The President rightly apologized for his administration’s role in the firing, i.e., for his underlings shooting from the hip. In his low-key manner, he also pointed out how admirable a person Sherrod was and is. But in emphasizing his apology for the hasty and unjustified firing, the President brought the focus of discussion onto the ones who had failed to dodge the bullet and away from the ones who had fired the gun. Where was the outrage at the deliberate assassination of this beautiful character?

Several times I have praised the President’s low-key, understated, cerebral approach on this blog (1, 2, 3 and 4). In general, I prefer his brand of deliberate, thoughtful, and intelligent analysis. After all, it was undue haste that caused Sherrod’s firing.

But there are times when acts are so outrageous that they call for angry condemnation, even if your own mistakes compounded the damage. At those times, a brief flareup from a preternaturally cool person like the President could have an extraordinary impact. It could be a national “teachable moment.”

In his heyday as an anchorman, Walter Cronkite had a public personality much like the President’s. He was cool, professional, noncommittal and dry. In all the many years I watched him serve the news to an eager nation, I saw his anger flare only once.

It was during the tumultous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The Democrats were violently split over the War in Vietnam, and their division spilled into demonstrations on the streets outside. Inside the Convention, Chicago Mayor Dick Daley (the present mayor’s father) had hired security men to maintain his version of “order” (pro-war and pro-Establishment) on the floor. They went as far as roughing up Mike Wallace and Dan Rather, then working as floor reporters. In obvious umbrage, Cronkite referred on screen to Daley’s hirelings as “a bunch of thugs.”

The fact that so professional and dispassionate a man as Cronkite broke his cool for that single short moment is something I recall 42 years later. I can still hear his tone of voice and see his face. And I still love him for that single “lapse.”

I know, I know. The President is not after his “base”―people like me who shed tears of frustration on seeing such racial injustice succeed. Nor is he after the perpetrators of injustice, whose minds and hearts have been hardened by years of political cynicism and manipulation, or by ingrained prejudice and unfocused anger. He’s after the middle-of-the-roaders, the “independents,” the undecided, the ones who always seem to be the first to emote, the last to think, and (in this age of polarization) the deciders of our national fate. Who am I to question his superb political judgment, when I’ve already been wrong and he right twice?

And yet, and yet. While undoubtedly important, the next election is not the only thing that matters. The continual, slow debasement of our culture also matters, maybe more. When we let deliberate, extreme character assassination like this go by without a twinge of anger or outrage, what have we become? Lawyers’ dreary monotones, using polysyllabic phrasing to analyze and parse, can never convey the sense of Biblical outrage that this case warrants.

A major reason (perhaps the principal reason) for our nation's decline is rotten culture. (See 1, 2, 3 and 4.) We lack the instinctive, collective sense of right and wrong, shame, guilt and contrition that binds a society together with common values.

Maybe that’s why Catholics and Jews dominate our Supreme Court. Whatever else you may say about these two religions, they both have a well-developed sense of right and wrong, with internalized shame and guilt to enforce it. No well-trained Catholic or Jew could perpetrate this sort of journalistic fraud without a sense of guilt or shame.

My final point is about Sherrod herself. As discussed below, her prospects for succeeding in a libel case are uncertain. But I’m sure many lawyers would take her illustrious case on a pro bono (gratis) basis.

It seems clear that the offending blogger deliberately doctored the video of her speech to distort its meaning. Fox News and others then adopted the doctoring or rebroadcast it without the slightest attention to accuracy, with self-evident preconceived political or commercial motivation. I personally would love to see the blogger bankrupted and Fox News hit hard by compensatory and punitive damages. This sort of knavery must have serious consequences, else our culture is lost.

But Sherrod may have a higher calling. Through her own suffering, growth and personal redemption, she has learned the truth about our modern bread and circuses. And she has learned the hard way. Maybe she should spend some time, while her name is still in the public mind, traveling the length and breadth of this nation and speaking to multiracial audiences about the oldest trick in the book: fooling common folk and stealing their birthright and their future by getting them to fight among themselves. I’d pay good money to see her tell her tale.


P.S. Van Jones’ Response to the Smearing of Sherrod

I wrote the foregoing post before reading Van Jones’ New York Times op-ed piece on the same subject. In it, Jones, who was cashiered in a different but equally disturbing “gotcha!,” pleads for “a wiser, more forgiving culture."

With all due respect to Jones, whom I otherwise admire, and who was referring to Sherrod’s long abandoned partiality, more forgiveness will not cure what ails us. We ought not to forgive certain things, including deliberate lies and distortions—at least not if we wish to regain the close contact with reality that once defined us a nation.

We need a penalty for lies and distortions that bites. Right now, we reward these defects, pushing ourselves ever closer to the definition of national insanity.

Consider the blogger who fraudulently doctored the Sherrod video (cursed be he, whose name I will not mention, lest I increase his unwarranted celebrity). He has risen from obscurity to instant notoriety and no doubt has become a hero of the lunatic right. Even Jones admits that this fraud’s distortion garnered millions of hits. Hits are bloggers’ currency, both psychologically and (if they “monetize” their blogs by advertising or otherwise) financially.

So our culture has rewarded this sleazebag with fame and fortune, its chief rewards today. His only punishment is the skepticism of the few remaining legitimate reporters and the disapprobation of that part of the public which he and his true-believing followers disregard. That’s not much of a deterrent to repeated bad behavior.

A big problem is our libel and defamation laws. They now permit anyone to defame a so-called “public figure” as long as that figure can’t prove publication of a falsehood with knowledge of or reckless disregard for the truth. That’s an awfully high standard. In Sherrod’s case, it’s unclear whether she’s a public figure. She was a public servant, but I never heard of her before this week. It’s also unclear whether the kind of quoting out of context that the blog propagandist committed, even if done with malice aforethought, is enough to meet the high legal standard.

This high bar for libel litigation arose in an era when well-trained professional journalists protected us from deliberate and even most negligent distortions of the truth. In fact, it arose in a case (New York Times v. Sullivan) against the paragon of American print news, the New York Times. The standard was designed to preserve First-Amendment values in an era where their keepers were highly professional news organizations and an elite corps of well-trained and generally ethical journalists.

Today we get our news, directly and indirectly, from thousands of bloggers, many of whom have no training in journalism, no integrity, no morals, not-so-hidden agendas, and (as in the Sherrod case) no incentive to be picky about the truth. Whether the law in its sleepy majesty ever changes to reflect this brave new world of the Internet will determine, in part, whether we maintain our collective contact with reality or nod off into the Internet’s many fictional alternative realities, including the most extreme.

Unfortunately, the law, with all its ponderousness, ambiguity and delay, seems to be our chief enforcer of public values these days. Other successful democratic societies had more forceful and quicker-acting means to curb socially destructive behavior, such as ostracism, exile, public ridicule, and public chastisement.

Some of these social curbs depended on psycho-social constructs like guilt, shame and contrition, which have nearly vanished in our base culture of celebrity and personal excess. Maybe we need to bring back the more physical curbs of an earlier age, such as the pillory, hurled eggs and rotten fruit, or tarring and feathering.

Until we do one of these things, our culture and our collective contact with reality will be at the mercy of sleazebags like the blogger who smeared Shirley Sherrod, apparently deliberately. We don't need more forgiveness of acts like that. We need more effective legal and social means of curbing socially destructive distortion of information that, in the Internet age and in a society built on the notion that all speech is good, could ultimately bring us down.

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18 July 2010

Trade


Introduction
The West/East Historical Divide
Trade’s Importance Today
Our Hurt Now
Interim Solutions

Introduction

Trade will determine our human species’ future. It is our chief survival strategy and our best alternative to war. How we manage global trade during the current economic crisis will determine how quickly we emerge from it, what the world will look like when we do, and whether our species will continue on its present painful and halting but discernible path toward global enrichment and a planet-wide Golden Age. Trade will also determine whether and how we solve our two most pressing global problems: (1) limited reserves of fossil fuels and (2) climate change induced by our own activities.

For readers who are young today, trade (including tourism, cultural exchanges and working abroad) will determine your standard of living, when, whom (and whether) you marry, your kids’ opportunities, and whether you or they will have to endure war. So, as we professors like to say, pay attention. This will be on the test, which will be your life.

Why is trade so important? Because it is the only entirely voluntary and consensual way in which different cultures and ethnic groups interact to mutual advantage on a daily basis. It is the glue that binds the human species together and makes the globe seem smaller. It and war are the chief means by which human beings from vastly different cultures interact on a regular and sometimes daily basis. Of the two, trade is more pleasant.

The West/East Historical Divide

Anyone who doubts the power of trade should read Gavin Menzies’ 1421, which is probably the most important work of nonfiction to emerge since the turn of the century. In it, Menzies describes how China, then at the apex of its civilization and relative power, “discovered” the world, including North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and the polar continents, seventy years before Columbus set sail, a century before Magellan, and more than three centuries before Cook.

Menzies’ seminal book focuses on the evidence proving his thesis of prior Chinese discovery. It is a superb historical detective story. But for me, that was an easy sell. I had already seen (in Russia’s Hermitage Museum, I think) a map with clear outlines of most of the world’s continents, reliably dated decades before Columbus’ voyage. Someone had to have done the necessary discovery and charting, and the logical choice was China, then by far the world’s most advanced civilization.

So what intrigued me was not the detailed proof of Menzies’ thesis, which I already half believed. What fascinated me was the kind of world that Menzies’ outlined, fuzzily and sketchily, as he went about the task of proving in detail his principal point.

China’s “discovery” of the world outside was as different from Europe’s as the day is from the night. There were no Conquistadores, no military plunder, no enforced colonization, no enslavement of “savages,” no genocides. There were precious few devastating epidemics, for the Chinese explorers brought with them medical specialists and herbs and implements needed to deal with all the ailments that plagued them. All this happened because the Chinese goal was not conquest or dispossession of natural resources, but trade.

The Chinese at the time were hardly without military resources. Their biggest ships were as wide as the European explorers’ were long (about 50 meters) and were well equipped with cannon, flame throwers, and all sorts of advanced weapons. Their main discovery fleet (which later split) had at least 800 of these behemoths, more than twice the number of much smaller British ships that plagued us over three centuries later (during our Revolutionary War) in the seige of New York. According to Menzies, who is a superbly educated submarine captain and should know, no fleet in human history could have taken on a Chinese discovery fleet and won, until perhaps the late nineteenth century.

But did the Chinese use this advanced firepower to conquer and plunder? Hardly. They charted coasts, bays and rivers. They developed new methods of astronautical navigation. They made friends. They mined and refined minerals, mostly useful stuff like iron, lead and copper. They established small, isolated trading colonies, mostly in already-settled areas. And most of all, they traded. Chinese jade, statuary and porcelain dating to the Ming dynasty remain today as evidence of their presence and principal occupation: lucrative trade. In some cases (probably following shipwrecks), the Chinese left legends of strange foreigners settling in and ultimately their DNA, distinctive chickens and native plants as evidence of their own transplantation.

China asked foreign potentates to send emissaries to China to pay tribute and kow-tow to the Emperor. But who wouldn’t, after seeing the wealth on offer for trade and the self-evident size and power of China’s fleet?

China made the journey and (mostly ritual) submission palatable in many ways. It gave emissaries large private staterooms for the months-long voayages, which were generous even by modern cruise-ship standards. It also gave the voyagers Chinese concubines for companions, space for their servants, slaves, supplies and gifts, and access to the best food, wine, literature, knowledge, music and entertainment that the world then offered. (Printed Chinese encyclopaedias, brought along on these voyages, later helped spark the Italian Renaissance. But that’s another story, outlined in Menzies’ later book, 1434.)

There was little for foreign emissaries to resist but a glimpse into and access to a far better world than that which they and even their kings enjoyed. For most of the voyagers, it must have felt like being transported and coddled by an advanced alien culture of the type that science-fiction writers now invent.

Unfortunately, that world is long gone. Indeed, it was gone shortly after these great voyages of discovery began. China had overextended itself. Among many other things, it had denuded large parts of southeastern China and provoked (and lost) a war of independence with Vietnam by ravishing enormous areas of trees to build ships. This profligacy turned the powerful Mandarins against the emperor (Zhu Di).

By the time the remainder of the great discovery fleets returned to China several years later, they met a new emperor and an imperial edict to destroy all records of their discoveries and leave the great ships to rot. That’s why it took so long to redisccover these Chinese voyages of discovery.

Menzies leaves one thing only partly revealed: a fleeting glimpse into a world of “discovery” by an advanced civilization not by conquest, colonization, genocide or enslavement, but by mutually beneficial trade. That glimpse is so wildly different from the history of the Americas’ and Africa’s treatment at Europeans’ hands as to seem an alternative universe from a science-fiction movie. If you compare these two histories of discovery, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, relatively speaking, we Westerners indeed played the part of barbarians with superior weapons.


Trade’s Importance Today

But I digress. Why is trade vital today? The bloody last century teaches us that. We Westerners treated natural resources (and any native peoples who happened to be in the way) as inanimate objects of plunder by force. Conquest and colonization followed “discovery.” (I put the word in quotes because it seems a bit hubristic to “discover” people who already knew they were there.)

As local societies and government developed, Western conquest became more subtle and less violent, though no less forceful. An example was our own “Gunboat diplomacy” of the nineteenth century, which put natural resources and native peoples at the call of our multinational corporations. The US overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, the anti-democratic putsches in Iran, Nicaragua, Panama and San Salvador, plus the numerous attempts on Fidel Castro’s life and regime, may have been the last spasms of our Western “discovery by conquest” regime.

An ethos of discovery and partial occupation (colonization) by conquest has an unfortunate consequence: it invites powers that think they are stronger to take what you’ve got. That’s precisely what happened in Europe and its colonies for several centuries. The Pope tried to establish order among Catholic states by drawing a meridian around the globe, dividing the legitimate domains of Portugal and Spain, which happened to bisect Australia. That didn’t do much for Protestant nations. A several century free-for-all ensued, culminating in the forced “opening” of Tokugawa Japan by Admiral Perry’s black ships and the slicing up of China by Western colonial powers like a piece of smoked ham.

The last century’s two great wars were just the culmination of this ethos. Although the Nazis coined the phrase “Macht macht Recht” (“Might makes right”), they had plenty of precedent. For several centuries, that had been the norm governing inter-imperial relations and especially colonial relations with native peoples, despite sporadic attempts by expatriot priests, cardinals and others to describe how terrible was the fate of native peoples that resulted.

Viewed from this historical perspective, World War II takes on a different mein. The Holocaust becomes a puzzling aberration, and the motive force of Germany’s and Japan’s aggression a quest for territory, colonies and natural resources in the mainstream of Western European history, by two nations that came late to the colonization party. How different it all might have been if China, with its vast trade and humiliating but harmless ritual submission had set the norms for international relations and treatment of native peoples, including “savages” and “barbarians”!

But history is history. No use crying over split milk. Then next step in Western social evolution was much better. Chastened by the loss of 50 million souls, the devastation of three continents, and the specter of a irremediable nuclear holocaust, the Western world began to wise up after World War II. Gradually, over several decades, it set up the current international trading regime to replace the former regimes of conquest and colonization. Then (and now) if you wanted natural resources like oil, gold, iron, copper or bananas, you could buy them in free trade. You didn’t have to fight for them or conquer and terrorize native peoples on whose land they happened to be. Militarization became much less important for economic survival---a good thing in the nuclear age.

One still wonders how different the world might be if the reign of Zhu Di had continued and his discovery fleets had returned to a heroes’ welcome and a thriving society ready to become even more prosperous and advanced through peaceful trade. But better late than never. The Western world eventually learned the value of trade over conquest, as the Chinese had centuries before. Now Germany and Japan, the instigators of humanity’s most terrible conflict, are at peace and among the world’s most productive, advanced and prosperous societies, all through the miracle of trade.

Diminishing the economic reasons for war is not all that international trade has accomplished. As I noted five years ago, trade is in the process of transferring the benefits of rational, modern social organization from Northern Europe and North America to the rest of the world. In the process, it has lifted more people out of deeper poverty more rapidly than any social, political or military movement in human history. In the last ten years alone, hundreds of millions in China, India and Brazil have risen from poverty to the middle class, and the perpetual sinks of disease and misery in Africa and Southeast Asia have begun to dry up.

If you include education, tourism and cultural exchanges, all this is a result of trade. Since World War II, trade has accomplished far greater net good for a far greater number than all the conquests and military victories in human history.


Our Hurt Now

Unfortunately for us gringos, trade has lately come to be a giving proposition. We have nearly exhausted our oil and much of our mineral resources, so we have to bid for these commodities against the rest of a hungry world. Workers abroad will work for less and tolerate more abuse and pollution, so we have lost tens of millions of jobs, which are not coming back any time soon. The country whose innovation, industry and Yankee-trading impulses led the greatest (and most peaceful!) transfer of wealth in human history has been hollowed out and left to seek its solace in financial machinations and swindling.

Of course the exodus of jobs is only a short-to-medium term problem. As the developing world industrializes, its people will demand higher wages, better working conditions, better benefits, cleaner air, water and soil, and the right to participate in managing their industry and society. Then the international playing field of labor will be leveled, and jobs will seek the highest skills. This already has happened in Japan and Korea. It is starting to happen in China. The result—eventual worldwide parity of workers—will bring jobs back to our shores and favor the highly educated worker.

But that’s at best in the medium term, at worst in the long term. As the great economist John Maynard Keynes once said, in the long run we are all dead. What do we do in the interim?

There indeed is the rub. That nation that started this enormous global transfer of wealth out of enlightened self-interest got too enlightened and not sufficiently self-interested. Jobs left us in droves, hollowing out our middle class, deepening poverty and convincing millions (not without reason!) that the “American Dream” is finished. The result is great economic pain, dislocation of millions, and political unrest that could destabilize this country and, through it, much of the world.

This is not just an American problem. Albeit in decline, we are still the leader of the free world, ideologically, culturally and militarily. We are still the world’s largest consumer, the world’s largest national market and the world’s second largest regional market, after the EU. When we suffer, the rest of the world hurts, too. More important, our enthusiastic adoption and sponsorship of free trade is what put the world on a glidepath to a new Golden Age in the first place. Do we want to give all that up? Do we want to return to the bad old days of resource allocation by conquest? I don’t think so.


Interim Solutions

Seen in this light, the trade problem changes character. In general, trade is not a bad thing; it just happens to be hurting us now. So what interim measures can we adopt, in a regime of free trade, to get us “over the hump” to the coming age of worldwide labor parity and robust, “fair,” level-playing-field competition? What short-term measures can we adopt to assuage our hurt and improve our lot until the coming Golden Age?

Two very smart people, Nobel Laureate and columnist Paul Krugman and Intel Founder Andy Grove, seem to recommend a return to protectionism. But I don’t think they really mean it. As an economist, Krugman knows how damaging a cycle of protectionism and retaliation would be. That’s why he recommends “trade sanctions,” by which I think he means hauling China before the WTO and claiming that its currency manipulation is trade protectionism, permitting legal retaliation under WTO rules.

The problem there is timing. WTO cases take years to grind on. By the time we won one (if we did), China would have opened other markets for its products, so that any trade sanctions we’d impose would only hurt ourselves. China’s migration from low-tech to high-tech products would only make that solution worse. We could keep out Chinese toys and lawn furniture, but we might need to buy Chinese windmills for our energy or good Chinese batteries for our electric cars. Getting into a protectionist trade spat with a country of four times our population, which now offers low-cost production and soon promises to be the world’s technological leader, just doesn’t seem to make much sense.

As for Andy Grove, he’s a brilliant engineer and technological visionary, but he’s not an economist. His endorsement of protectionism seemed more a cry of desperation or a threat to China than a reasoned call to action. Making threats is no good unless you can carry them out, and China is smart enough to know that mutual protectionism would not be in our own interest.

So what are the real solutions to out short-term dilemma? If we weren’t broke, we could fight China on the currency exchange markets, driving the renminbi up as China tries to drive it down. But we can’t do that because China has the surplus and we are in debt. Protectionism is a dangerous illusion, for the reasons stated above. So what can we do?

One “solution” is just sucking it up. That appears to be the Republicans’ approach. They are so desperate to return to power they will tell any lie and spread any rumor, and they will try to convert a long-term problem (the deficit) into an urgent short-term one. If they do regain power, even in Congress, they will kill any chance for protectionism because they have only four notes to their score: more trade, less regulation, lower taxes (especially on the wealthy) and fewer lawsuits. What the idiot Tea Partiers don’t understand is that, if they get their fondest wish and undermine the President’s power still further, they will get more of the Republicans’ medicine. In the long run, that will be good for trade, although it will almost certainly produce a double-dip recession or another severe asset bubble in the shorter term.

These proposals are not serious attempts to solve the underlying problem: severe short-term detriment from ultimately beneficial international trade. They are reflex solutions that beg to be ignored.

What we need, I think, is a third way: a compromise between absolute free trade that sucks jobs abroad and the Smoot-Hawley tariffs that helped bring on World War II. We need to find a middle way, just as FDR and his “Brain Trust” found a middle way between the false choices of central-command socialism and rampant laissez faire capitalism of his age. We need to find an analogue to the regulated capitalism that brought us the world’s strongest economy for half a century.

The only real solution I can see is massive government investment in industrial policy. While free trade has accomplished wonders among nations, here at home free-market fundamentalism hasn’t done so well. It has given us the world’s most inflexible energy infrastructure, an addictive dependence on rapidly vanishing oil, a preference for the worst possible fuel (coal) as an alternative, a hollowed-out heavy-industrial and manufacturing base, and reliance for economic growth on financial-institution swindling and fads like huge shopping centers and thousands of “me, too” Internet companies.

All of these things have to change. At the risk of incurring a little more debt, we can change them with intelligent national industrial policy, followed by massive federal investment in infrastructure and new industries.

We don’t know for sure what all of those industries will be, but we know what some of them will involve. There will be electric cars and good batteries to run them. There will be windmills, solar panels and solar thermal plants to generate electricity because the wind and sun are free. There will be more nuclear power plants. There will be more efficient means of mass transportation, including high-speed rail and ships designed for efficiency, perhaps even new, “high-tech” sailing ships. The science of genomics will combine with computers, medicine and molecular biology to produce steady progress against debilitating diseases, including most forms of cancer. And space travel, to Mars and beyond, will present a constant blandishment that no ambitious, exploring species can ignore. New breakthroughs will follow from these new industries just as they have in the past.

What if we took a few hundred billion dollars to invest in infrastructure, research-and-development, and scaling up for production in these fields? What if the government guided and helped manage the development of these industries, in partnership with private investors, and financed the infrastructure upgrades (nationwide fiber-optic networks, high-speed trains, electric-car charging stations, biofuels, etc.) needed to make them succeed?

We should never forget that our government was instrumental [search for "9."] in guiding, encouraging, managing and investing in the development of our species’ most impressive industrial achievement to date: air travel. The present regime of deregulation and privatization began only late in the 1970s, long after the industry’s maturity, and seven decades after its beginning.

This does not mean picking winners. Everyone knows that, one way or another, these industries will win. The role of government would be to vet the most promising contenders and make sure none languishes due to private investors’ risk aversion or the lack of nationwide infrastructure. Building the infrastructure alone, such as nationwide WiFi or 4D phone towers, would create a lot of jobs, just as building the Interstate Highway system did in the 1950s and 1960s. And the results would give our own industry—whatever precise form it might take—an advantage in international competition.

Might China and other trading partners cry “foul” and claim an unlawful trade subsidy, just as we did with Airbus and Airbus will do with Boeing? Sure. But WTO proceedings move slowly, and government investment, especially in infrastructure, is not obviously protectionist. Let our trading partners bring their cases: by the time they win (if they do), labor costs may already be at parity and our job crisis may be over. In the meantime we will have repaired and enhanced our aging infrastructure, given our future industries a head start, and put ourselves back on the road to competitiveness.

Will this approach increase our deficit? Sure. But it will do so only in the short-to-medium term. If government assistance, for example, can make GM’s Chevy Volt a world-beating electric car, provide infrastructure for its widespread use, and help GM scale up production so as to halve the manufacturing cost, we can start exporting cars again, in quantity.

The alternative is to do nothing, or to wait until the Republicans return to power and do nothing but lower taxes on the wealthy and continue business as usual. That seems like an almost certain recipe for continued national decline.

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10 July 2010

Mortgages, Law and Culture, or Why Plato Still Matters


You can get a lot of food for thought by reading the daily newspaper.

A case in point is today’s New York Times article about the “rich” defaulting on mortgages more than the “poor.” According to a firm that gathers this sort of data, over one in seven million-dollar-plus mortgages is in default, while only about one in twelve smaller loans is. That’s nearly a twofold increase in default rate as you cross the million-dollar line.

By itself, this factoid should not amaze us. It’s harder to pay large mortgages, and people who got them probably stretched farther to finance their McMansions. There’s also more profit in big loans, so unscrupulous mortgage brokers and banks probably worked harder and crookeder to produce them during the go-go subprime days. No big surprises there.

The surprises come as you probe beneath the surface of this story and read some of the 533 comments—a high number for the on-line Times. As several commenters noted, a million-dollar home is not “rich” in many areas of the country. In several I can name off the top of my head, a home with that price would be a rare bargain or a tear-down: Manhattan’s Upper East Side, L.A.’s Beverly Hills, Brentwood and Bell Air districts, San Francisco’s Presidio-Lake area, Los Altos, CA, and Greenwich, CT.

As a close friend once confided, a million dollars is not what it used to be. The take-away here is that our nation is in some respects no longer a single economy. What would buy a notable extravagance in most of the Midwest would at best get you a skimpy “starter” home in our wealthier areas.

The second surprise is how complex the governing law is, and how important it is to understanding what is really going on. Here the Times reporter was sloppy—an error several commenters tried to correct.

As I’ve outlined in another detailed post, state laws allow home-mortgage holders to walk away from “underwater” homes without recourse, but only in certain states. These laws, called “anti-deficiency” laws, require lenders to recover their loans only from the home’s value. Other states (“deficiency” states) allow lenders to recover any deficiency after foreclosure by suing the borrower. A borrower in a deficiency state can escape payment of the loan (if at all) only through bankruptcy.

There’s also another nuance. Many anti-deficiency laws, such as California’s, apply only to a principal residence, not to second homes or investment property. But as some commenters pointed out, clever owners of multiple residences can circumvent this rule by defaulting on their principal residence and moving into a second or investment home.

And so it goes. These complex rules favor the savvy and well-advised over the fearful and uneducated. Generally speaking, they favor the rich over the poor. They also amount to a state-residency “lottery” insofar as liability for deficiencies is concerned. If you live in a state that passed anti-deficiency legislation in the Great Depression, you win. If not, tough luck.

Like the reporter, most of the 533 commenters were unaware of these legal nuances. They focused on culture, not law. Many bewailed the loss of permanence and stability that home ownership is supposed to bring.

Down on your luck but lucky enough to live in a deficiency state? Then throw your home in the trash, hand the keys to the bank, abscond with whatever assets you can hide, and start over. Treat your home like those damnable plastic “clamshell” packages that thumb drives come in. Don’t give a second thought to the neighbors or neighborhood that you leave struggling behind you. Take care of yourself.

Hard on the heels of the moralists and communitarians were the self-justifiers. Corporations and even small businesses dump bad deals every day, they said. There’s nothing wrong with that. Contracts are made to be broken; they specify in nauseating detail exactly what the results of default will be. So when you default deliberately, you are doing nothing more than exercising your “rights” under the contract.

One commenter went so far as to explain that the first thing law students learn about contracts is that breach is lawful and routine. He’s right. Legal economists even have a fancy theory to justify deliberate default, which goes by the name of “efficient breach.” There are no criminal penalties or punitive damages for breaking a contract, and debtor’s prison vanished with the Victorian Age. So the defaulters and self-justifiers have all the law on their side.

But that’s law, not culture. What’s the effect on culture—our society—of a rule of law that encourages home throw-aways, promotes complexity and nuance, favors the rich and the tricky, and encourages “efficient breach”? You can answer that question with a single factoid: of all the 533 commenters, only one plaintively longed for the day when a person’s word was his bond.

Why is that significant? If you like economic analysis, you can point to efficiency. It takes time, money and expensive lawyers to draft all those detailed contracts. Human language is uncertain, so persistent parties can always dispute what the complex clauses mean. Then you go to court, wait years for a decision and pay lawyers hundreds of thousands or millions to duke it out. That’s efficient?

But leave economics aside for a moment. Let’s talk about trust. It has an economic component, to be sure. But it’s also a human emotion. When you can trust your neighbors and the folks you deal with to treat you fairly and honestly, your step is a lighter and your outlook brighter. You have more time and mental energy for creativity, initiative and fun. You aren’t spending lots of time planning and plotting, and drafting all those clauses, just to avoid being cheated or to gain the upper hand.

Japan provides an interesting contrast. It has fewer than one-hundredth the lawyers per capita that we do. Yet, with less than one-half our population, it also has the world’s third-largest economy. When things go awry between Japanese corporations, executives sit down and try to work things out. They rarely go to court, except when dealing with westerners.

And one other thing. When you visit Japan, be sure to stop at a stationery store and ask the proprietor what those little brightly-colored envelopes with fringe on them are for. As he/she will tell you, they’re for sending cash gifts, in crisp new 10,000-yen notes (the equivalent of $100 bills) through the mail, so postal employees and everyone else will take special care of them.

That’s trust. Maybe it’s also why Asia is on the rise and we are in decline. Maybe some aspects of Asia’s culture provide efficient social guarantees that beat our ten thousand words of legalese which only lawyers understand.

It seems self-evident that a culture requiring fine print drafted by lawyers is not one based on trust, community and common values. Maybe that’s why health-insurance reform disgusted so many voters, and why the financial-sector reform to come seems ready to do the same. It’s not that reform wasn’t needed; it surely was. And it’s not that the reform bills don’t reflect lots of good ideas.

But what the public wanted was a simple rule that says “Treat us fairly. Don’t swindle us. Give us health insurance and financial products that meet our reasonable expectations, don’t trick us, and actually work.” Instead, they got thousands of pages of legal prose that leave enormous room for dispute, and that not even expert legal reporters can adequately explain. After being burned so many times, the American people suspect there are loopholes in those thousands of pages that will cost them dearly and come back to bite them when they can least defend themselves.

And they’re probably right. We now live in a culture of “gotcha!,” where the cleverest finagler, not the most honest and helpful person, nearly always wins. Goldman Sachs is just the latest exemplar but hardly the first.

Which brings me to Plato (and Socrates, too). During the runup to the 2008 campaign, I published a post about “virtue,” mostly praising Obama and likewise McCain (before his wretched presidential campaign).

“Virtue,” is a vague word denoting human qualities that make a person admirable and build a just and admirable society. The ancient Greeks—the world’s first recorded small-d democrats—worried about it more than almost anything else. To them, law was secondary; being worthy of trust and building community were first.

Greek punishments told the tale. There was far more ostracism than death. The greatest crime was harming the community, and the punishment (exile) was appropriate to that end.

My “virtue” post met with a resounding silence, apparently out of tune with the times. One commenter on another blog, who seemed to like my support of Obama, said my talk of “virtue” put him off his feed, or words to that effect. I realized then that we live in a culture that doesn’t know or care what “virtue” means. Maybe we should. Maybe we should all read Plato again.

As health-insurance reform shows and financial reform soon will, law can change literally overnight. In our country, that happens when the President signs a bill passed by Congress into law. But culture takes decades or centuries to change.

If you want an example, look at our “original sin,” slavery. We ratified our Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. It reads in part as follows:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Pretty clear and comprehensive, isn’t it? It’s hard to mistake its meaning or intent. Yet we had Ku Klux Klan terror and/or Jim Crow laws for 96 years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Since then we’ve elected an African-American president, but many who share his black African genes still suffer from discrimination, disrespect, poverty and marginalization. And it’s now 142 years after we adopted the Fourteenth Amendment and 145 after the guns fell silent in our bloodiest-ever war, waged to make its adoption possible.

Watching culture change is like watching trees grow. That’s why it’s so dangerous when culture changes for the worse.

When I was born in the mid-forties, we still had a culture in which “his word is his bond” was a mark of admiration. Now, thirty years after Reagan, we have a culture of “Gotcha!” and caveat emptor, in everything from health care to banking and computers.

I don’t trust any single health insurer to give me a fair, trustworthy policy, so I have three. I don’t trust banks to deal with me fairly, so I split my assets among a half-dozen financial institutions, each of which I’m ready to abandon at the drop of a hat, as I already have at least four in the past. I don’t trust computers, software, or electronic devices to work consistently, or their makers to stand behind them when they inevitably fail, so I practice redundancy in my every use of modern technology. I always have a backup, often two.

Maybe these are necessary self-protective measures. But a culture in which a superbly educated retired person has to spend so much time and money on self-protection is a sick one. As many of those commenters on the mortgage defaulters so vividly expressed, it is a culture of every man or woman for herself.

Our nation wasn’t like this when I was a kid. Everyone seemed to have a basic sense of reason and fairness—a common language of virtue, as it were. Today it’s all about what you can get away with: what lies and spin politicians can get people to believe, and what fine print business can sneak by consumers and business partners in contracts.

Usually I’m a cockeyed optimist. But as I ponder these lessons of culture, I get less and less so. Law is powerless against decaying culture: reform bills may change some laws for the better, but all they do culturally is increase the volume of fine print. It’s unclear whether any recovery from such deep cultural rot is possible, which may be why Rome fell.

But three things are increasingly clear to me. First, in the long run, a society of “Gotcha!” will never surpass a society of trust like Japan’s, where you can send large packets of cash through the mail in perfect confidence. Second, laws alone will not cure what ails us. We need a change of culture and a change of heart. Third, repairing our culture of “Gotcha!”, selfishness and greed is going to take a long time.

I doubt I’ll be around to see the change, although I expect to live to see China surpass us in GDP. Whether we can cure our cultural rot in time to prevent an exodus of talent and arrest our economic decline depends a lot on how soon we start.


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04 July 2010

Think!—A Voter’s Guide for 2010


For the Right
For the Left
For the Center
Update: July 6, 2010

The orgy of comment on our recent primary and special elections has made one thing clear. The American people are very, very dissatisfied. Those on the right are fed up. Those on the left are disillusioned. Those in the middle―well, they’re a vanishing species and don’t matter much anymore. But even the few remaining centrists are unhappy.

What’s most interesting are the reasons. The right think the President is a socialist or a Communist, who busies himself divvying up what remains of our nation’s wealth and passing it out to undeserving freeloaders. The left think the President has sold out progressive goals to the corporate elite, the “fat cats.” The most extreme of them accuse him of being a corporate toady or crypto-fascist.

The middle―well, it’s hard to find them nowadays. But a moderate conservative like David Brooks has characterized the President (several times!―1, 2 and 3) as a middle-of-the-road pragmatist. Nobody listens to Brooks, the left because he’s a self-identified conservative, and the right because he’s too moderate, cerebral, and “elite.”

Of course these views are mutually contradictory. Logically they can’t all be right. So every voter who subscribes to one of them ought to re-examine his or her beliefs.

One thing we all agree on: if things don’t change for the better soon, we are all headed to third-world status, together. We’ll probably get there before babies born this year come of age. So if you have kids and care about their future, you should care enough to think and reconsider where you stand.

To that end, I thought I’d pose some very basic questions for voters still willing to think. Since the places we all start from are so different, I’ve organized my questions into three groups, for the right, left, and center.

For the Right

1. You say you want “smaller government.”

Does that mean you want to downsize or eliminate the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard? Which would you get rid of: the Post Office, Social Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (which keeps your workplace safe), or the Environmental Protection Agency (which keeps the air you breathe and the water you drink reasonably clean)?

In normal times, these institutions account for the vast majority of federal expenses and federal debt. If you got rid of one or more of them, what would take over their functions? Do you want Blackwater fighting the Taliban for profit? Do you want investment banks and hedge funds providing for your aging parents’ retirement? Massey Coal watching over safety in the workplace? BP in charge of environmental conservation? If not, what real alternatives are there to government and government regulation?


2. You are outraged at the bailouts and the bonuses for bankers who destroyed the global economy. Everyone agrees with you on this.

Did you know that the Administration of George W. Bush started the bailouts, including TARP, with decisive Republican support? (Go look it up! See also, recent recap.) If two groups of leaders as ideologically opposed as Dubya’s and Barack Obama’s took precisely the same approach, is it possible there was no alternative? If so, who’s to blame? The fella on whose watch the crash came, and who was in office for the previous eight years? Or the guy who took over after the crash and continued some of the same solutions?


3. Much more important than who’s to blame is who’s likely to do what. Over the last thirty years, which party has been more likely to reduce regulation and corporate taxes and give the CEOs free reign, the Democratic or the Republican party? If the Republicans, do you expect more or fewer bailouts and regulatory failures if the GOP wins the November elections? Do you want to give more power to oil companies like BP, investment banks like Goldman Sachs and other corporations?


4. Whose votes on the Supreme Court allowed corporations to take the money you pay for cars, gasoline, computers, electricity and plane rides and use some of it to tell you how to vote? Is that a good thing? If not, who appointed the Justices who cast the deciding votes, namely Roberts and Alito? Do you want more of the same? Do you want the profits corporations make by selling you the necessities of life used to tell you how to vote? Is that “liberty”?


5. Everyone, right, left and center, wants change. Who can deliver it? The GOP has owned the White House for all but nine-plus of the last thirty years. Democrat Bill Clinton ran a centrist administration, the last three years of which were preoccupied with the Monica Lewinski scandal. If it’s time for a change, who’s more likely to bring it, the party in power most of the last thirty years, of the new guys in town? Is sixteen months a fair trial for change after thirty years of mostly consistent policy?


6. It’s easy to criticize the guy in the hot seat, but who’s your alternative? Mitt Romney? Sarah Palin? Mitch McConnell? Scott Brown? Rand Paul? Rush Limbaugh? Congressional candidates who support them?

Before answering these questions, think. Suppose one of these people were your immediate boss. Would you be happy in your job? Would you be confident of the future of the business in which you work? Would you want to work directly for someone who always seems to have all the answers, without even gathering information or stopping to think? for someone like Rand Paul, who embarrasses himself by shooting his mouth off in the very first days after his upset win? If not, what makes you think one of these people would make a good political leader?


For the Left

1. If you no longer support Barack Obama, whom do you support? Jesus Christ is not likely to run for office here, either in November or in 2012. Do you have a real alternative leader in mind? Does anyone in the Democratic party appear likely to challenge the President for leadership anytime soon?

If not, your alternatives in 2012 will be Mitt Romney (most likely), Sarah Palin, Scott Brown, Mitch McConnell or maybe Rand Paul. Perhaps Rush Limbaugh will acknowledge his intellectual leadership of the GOP and run. Which of these figures do you prefer to the President, to salute, love and obey as your national leader? Should you vote for people running for Congress who support them?


2. Do you really believe that the sellout to corporate America started in January 2009? Or did it start thirty years ago, with Ronald Reagan? If with Reagan, do you expect a president―any president!―to change thirty years of consistent policy in sixteen months?

Let me rephrase that question in personal terms. Suppose your son or daughter had been a goof-off and failing student all his or her life. Then suppose, in the final year of high school, he or she started earning Cs and a few Bs. Would you disown your kid for being hopeless, or would you say “keep it up and try harder”?


3. If the President is the best we can realistically hope for, then do you want to tie his hands? During the last sixteen months, has the GOP assisted the President cooperatively or opposed his every move? Are the “new Republicans,” aka “Tea Partiers,” more or less likely to cooperate? If less, then how will your sitting home on election day, or voting for a candidate who cannot win, help the President do what you elected him to do?


4. If Republicans win the November election and decrease the Democratic majority in Congress, what will happen? Will you get the change you wanted in 2008? Or will you get more of the consistent Republican agenda for thirty years: lower taxes for the wealthy, smaller and less competent government, less regulation of corporations (including banks, hedge funds, and oil companies), and more corporate propaganda? If you stay home in November or throw away your vote on a candidate who has no chance of winning, will you make this outcome more or less likely?


For the Center

1. If you’re still in the center, despite everything that’s happened, you probably pride yourself on your cool reason and ability to weather any storm.

Who of the following best exemplifies those ideals: Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, Scott Brown, Rand Paul, or Barack Obama? Which of them do you now know enough about to make a wise decision that will determine your and your kids’ future? Should you gamble on an unknown?


2. Over the last thirty years, what caused the most trouble, government doing too much, or government doing too little? Would we be in better or worse shape if Congress had strengthened regulation of high finance and refused to allow companies like Massey Coal and BP to determine for themselves how much safety equipment to install? If better, who is likely to restore the proper balance of regulation and private initiative? Is the party that consistently pushed for weaker regulation over the past thirty years likely to do that job?


3. If you’re in the center, you don’t like extremes. Who and what are the extremes today? President Obama rejected the public option for health care, delayed closing Guantánamo when real problems arose, nixed precipitous, early withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is dealing cautiously with Iran and North Korea. Is that extreme, or is it cautious, thoughtful, and prudent, just like you?


4. What do the Tea Partiers want? Do you know? Does anyone know? They’re mad about a lot of things, and rightly so about some. But do they have solutions, and do their solutions make sense? Is smaller government the solution to every problem, even problems of lax regulation? If not, do you want to gamble on their leadership?


5. If the Tea Partiers and folks like Sarah Palin and Rand Paul are assuming leadership of the Republican Party, should you follow? Can you describe them as “centrist,” like you? If not, should you vote for Democrats or throw away your vote on a fringe candidate who has no chance of winning?


* * *


Wherever you come from―right, left or center―consider one thing. November’s election is just as important as the presidential election in 2008. In fact, it’s really a continuation of that election. Its outcome will determine whether President Obama gets a chance to enact his agenda for change, or whether Congress will come to a screeching, grinding halt with even more divisive partisanship.

If you stay home, or if you vote for a candidate who has no realistic chance of winning, you are throwing away your most important power as citizen.

Under current economic conditions, you have only two other ways of influencing public policy. You can try to move big corporations by boycotting those with which you disagree. Good luck if they have monopolies! Or you can gamble your life, fortune and sacred honor in a second American Revolution. Don’t you think you should try the vote―and vote smart!―before doing anything more drastic?

If you’re like most of us, you picked a spouse who’s a real person. Those few who held out for ideal fantasies are still single. Just so, in politics you have to pick the best you can get. There are no ideal candidates. Like marriage and life, politics is a messy business.

I’m not advocating the status quo. God knows we need change, especially in Congress. By all means vote the bums out. But before you do, make sure the bum you vote for is really better than the bum you want to replace. And be sure your chosen bum can win.

If you throw away your vote, or if you choose unwisely, you will have no one but yourself to blame when you or your kids have to emigrate to get a decent job, or when a different corporate master uses the power of vast wealth to control your every move. Continuing to castrate government might just produce these results.

If you think that’s “liberty,” think again! Imagine every necessity of life, from health care to gas, electricity, education and transportation, being supplied by a corporate monopoly, so you have to endure one of those marvelous telephone queues every time something goes wrong. That’s what your life will be like if we drown government in a bathtub, as many libertarians suggest. Is that really what you want?

If not, how about giving the party that’s been out of power for most of the last thirty years a chance to make real change? You know what the other party offered for the last eight years: two wars, out-of-control deficits, out-of-control corporations, and near economic collapse. Do you want more of that?

P.S. Update: July 6, 2010. A recent poll of so-called “Tea Party” members reveals them for what they really are: the core or base of the Republican Party. In other words, the GOP invented the “Tea Party” movement for the purpose of “rebranding” itself as more important, newer, and more attractive to independents than it really is. When you go into the voting booth in November, do you want to reward this sort of PR game-playing, or do you want someone who’ll try hard to find real solutions to America’s many problems, including the lack of jobs?

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